The Elements of Good Practice

In a previous post the topic of practicing at home (or wherever) safely was addressed. Before I leave that topic I am going to expand on this for you because, as a recent question pointed out, it will sometimes be the case that one of your recreational archers is really a competitive archer in disguise. Please remember that our definition of a competitive archer is one who is practicing to learn how to win, whereas purely recreational archers are practicing to participate, that is “to have fun.” The core difference between these two types of archers is that competitive archers will practice even if it is not fun. To serve these students you may have to give them something to do that your other students would balk at (because it is not fun). So in this article we address what constitutes good practice (fun or not).

Practice Must . . .
Most competitive archers learned by standing and shooting . . . a lot. This is not to be sneered at as being uninformed or unscientific; it is just boring and not particularly effective. Practice can be made more effective through observance of a few simple concepts. Simply put, practice must be: frequent, varied, repetitious, and most important . . . focused.

“Simply put, practice must be:
frequent, varied, repetitious,
and most important . . . focused.”

Practice Must Be Frequent
If a self-described rabid archer only wants to practice once a week or even less frequently, you can be sure that he/she is really a recreational archer. Competitive archers want to practice all of the time. The question is really “how often should a student practice.” This cannot be answered definitively and probably should not be. Beginning athletes are often quite literal and if you say “practice two times a week,” they will do that instead of what they would rather do. Top competitors practice several times a week, many do daily practice and some practice more than once a day. A practice routine will evolve and we recommend young archers be encouraged to “find” theirs. Initially I do not recommend practicing every day of the week. At least one day a week needs to be an “off ” day. Weightlifters and bodybuilders often work out daily but are careful to change which muscle groups they are working so that they don’t do heavy workouts on the same muscle groups on consecutive days. This gives time for the muscles to heal (strong exercise promotes muscular micro-bleeding) between being worked. Now archery does not involve so much exertion, so frequent practice of the same activity can be done but, at least initially, practice should not be uninspiring. Boredom is not a bad reason to quit a practice. (You may want to work with such an archer to teach them more about how to vary their practice routines and avoid boredom.)

“Boredom is not a bad reason to quit a practice.
(You may want to work with such an archer to
teach them more about how to vary their practice
routines and avoid boredom.)”

Practice Must Be Varied
I will make the point that being focused while shooting and practicing is the most important aspect of archery (as it is in every other precision sport). But on what must we focus? The answer is simple: we focus on what we are doing now. Archers need to live in the present, in the “now,” as nothing happening in the past or the future will help them execute their shots. This realization leads to having a shot sequence. In order to be able to shoot well and practice well, an archer really needs a shot routine or shot sequence. This is not to say an archer cannot achieve his/her goals without one, but why handicap oneself and deliberately do something the hard way? A shot sequence provides tremendous support to both archer and coach, so much so that we consider it indispensable. The shot sequence provides an important framework. Each element of the sequence can be evaluated as to its form and execution. As a general rule, we want the quality of each element/step to be the same as the others. Any element that is sub par needs to be worked on. The order they need to be worked on is the sequence of the steps: stance first, etc. If all of the steps in an archer’s sequence are about the same quality and an improvement is desired, a total overhaul is needed—each step needs to be brought up in quality. To guide the archer, we recommend the “One Next Thing” strategy (see below also), which is that one, and only one, thing should be focused on at a time when you are practicing. And when evaluating a shot while working on that one next thing, the only thing that should be evaluated is whether “the thing” was done right, nothing else. This is why so many archers shoot “blank bale” when working on their form: the score of the arrow is irrelevant, so why waste a target face?

Practice Must Be Repetitious
Archery is a repetition sport, like bowling. One basically repeats the same activity over and over with minor variations. The variations are minimal in target archery and much more extensive (distance, angle to target, angle to the sun, different footing, etc.) in field archery, but in all cases one does just execute making a shot over and over. So, the key skill of “making a good shot” must be accompanied by “being able to shoot consistently.” Consequently both factors have to be major parts of any competitive archer’s practice. Just standing and shooting arrow after arrow will work in time but the sheer repetitiousness will lead to boredom which leads to a lack of focus (see below). So, the real question is how to include the repetitions without getting bored. One simple technique is to double or triple a form element while shooting. If one were trying to learn to draw the string more smoothly and with greater power, one could just stand and draw one’s bow and let down, draw and let down, draw and let down. After sufficient practice, more draw weight can be provided with an added elastic band or by using a heavier bow. This will work, but archers not quite committed to learning to win might just get bored enough to quit. It is also being done outside of the context of making a shot. A more effective technique is “double draws:” while on the shooting line, the full shot sequence is executed but the draw is executed twice. So, after the string is drawn a letdown is performed and then the string is drawn again and the shot finished. Every activity is in context. The “draw” form element is highlighted in one’s subconscious mind by being done twice and the muscles used in making a smooth strong draw are invoked twice as much as the others.

If working on a new stance (open, closed, oblique, whatever) step off the line and step back to take one’s stance for every shot instead of for just the first shot. A three shot end therefore gives three reps of “take your stance” instead of just one. Of course, elements like the release and followthrough can’t be doubled/tripled but these elements are determined mostly by what comes before them rather than needing to be practiced as something one does.

Practicing can be entirely mental and removed from a range. One can practice taking one’s stance or the archer’s “T” position of full draw (with or without a stretch band to provide resistance) while waiting for a bus or while watching TV.

Practice Must Be Focused
In conversation, Rick McKinney, three time FITA World Champion and two-time Olympic Silver Medalist, commented that when he was preparing for such major events it was not uncommon for him to make 400 shots per day. He emphasized, though, that the hard part wasn’t making the 400 shots but  “being focused on each and every shot.” It takes hours to make 400 shots and it would be easy to let one’s mind wander to more pleasant topics while doing something so monotonous. But focus on each and every shot is needed.

What is being focused on is what the archer is doing “now.” Here is another benefit of having a shot routine. Each step must be focused on as it is executed and then one’s focus must shift to the next thing in sequence. This is not an intense concentration but the kind of focus that is involved in tying one’s shoes . . . after you have made a mistake tying them. There is no step-by-step sequence being muttered in the background, there is simply an attention to the task and nothing else. The key to making this work is the “Rule of Discipline” which states: if anything, anything at all—mental or physical— intrudes from a prior step or from your environment, you must let down and start over. Of course, a loss of focus is just such a reason to let down. A student who commits to the Rule of Discipline will make faster progress than one who does not.

Practice Science
There are any number of aspects of practice that are subject to science. (Don’t worry, we will not be going into them all here!) One of those aspects is that the subconscious mind (responsible for physical performances) is trained by the conscious mind, but the conscious mind can only be focused on one thing at a time. This is the basis for the “One Next Thing” approach. By only “working” on one thing at a time, the subconscious mind is being trained effectively. Focus on many things and only confusion and poor practice occur. There is a common saying “that it takes 21 days to create a new habit.” We wish there were some scientific basis for this but, if there is, we cannot find it. Still it will take many days of training to “correct” a bad habit, which is why focusing on getting one’s shot right (right as it can be at any stage of development) should precede volume shooting (which is drilling that shot into memory). This doesn’t mean a student can only work on one thing at a time, more advance students can do two, but this is hard. All one’s focus must be on practicing one of those things without any consideration of the other. And then, after sufficient practice has occurred, a switch is made to practicing the other without any consideration of the first. Obviously, early on, archers should focus on “just one thing” at a time.

Part of any practice regimen should be the shooting of practice rounds (for both the experience and for the feedback the scores provide). Process goals need to be set for whatever the archer is working on and evaluated after every end of shooting. It is also important that scores be tracked. This can be done as simply as by keeping a score sheet (and recording the scores for comparison purposes) to more complicated schemes such as printing out a paper target and writing the positions of the arrow hits on the target. Someone can track your arrows by writing the shot number on the paper target after scoping the target (1, 2, 3, . . .). If you are scoring yourself, you can write 1s in the positions of your first end’s arrows, 2s in the positions of your second end’s arrows, etc. What you are looking for is whether the groups are round and symmetrical. To check for roundness, draw lines quartering the target and count the holes, there should be the same number (or roughly so) in each quadrant. To be symmetrical, the size of a group is roughly the diameter of a circle containing 90% of the arrows and the sizes should be proportional to distance; for example, the circle at 50 yards distance should be twice as wide (and high) as the circle at 25 yards distance. If an archer’s groups are neither round nor symmetrical, there is a problem. Also if the archer’s groups wander (the 1s start in the middle then the 2s, 3s, etc move further left) there is a problem. These problems can’t be identified without record keeping. And, of course, the score of the round is an indicator of progress.

Tracking arrow impact points can really help evaluate problems. In this practice round, the second round ’s arrows (the 2s) tended to be low-left, but since the third round ’s arrows were centered, it wasn’t an equipment problem but something the archer was doing (same arrows different result). The impact points of the fifth (the 5s) and sixth (the 6s) ends tended to be low, a sure sign of fatigue (and dropping of the bow arm). Not just the score of this round is worth noting. Tracking where a student’s arrows land, even on a crudely printed paper target can provide a great deal of information.

If you have an archer champing at the bit for more practice, you may be dealing with a competitive archer. By focusing on the archer’s shot sequence, you can give such an archer practice tasks that test the archer as to whether they will perform tasks that aren’t fun. If your archer thrives on such activities, you will have to change the way you work with them. They need more practice, more often, with specific drills to help them improve. And those don’t have to be fun.

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